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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines its Community Spotlight on Emmett

Friday, December 29, 2017  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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View of Emmett from Freezeout Hill

Emmett lies in a beautiful valley framed on three sides by high-desert foothills and buttes primarily managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Across five miles of foothills to the south are the populated areas of Ada and Canyon Counties. Boise is 25 miles southeast.

Five miles northeast is Black Canyon Dam. The dam creates a lake that is over a half-mile wide and extends back into the canyon for more than five miles.

To the west, the Payette River floodplain opens into a fertile valley two to seven miles wide. The river passes through Emmett before flowing into the Snake River 30 miles to the northwest.

Emmett citizens enjoy a quiet, affordable, quasi-rural community that, at the same time, is readily accessible to the jobs and urban services available in the much larger cities of Ada and Canyon Counties.

Historical Tidbits

Prior to 1811 when explorers/trappers began traveling the Snake River and its tributaries, American Indian tribes camped in the Payette River Valley. The prehistoric flood plain had an abundance of wild game. Salmon and steelhead trout filled the Payette River each year during their annual spawning migrations.

In 1818 Alexander Ross led a band of beaver trappers who worked the Snake River and its tributaries. Many others followed.

In 1834 the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British enterprise, built a small trading post at the confluence of the Snake and Boise Rivers near what is now the city of Parma. The remote trading post was managed by a French-Canadian named François Payette, the man who became the namesake for a city, a river and a national forest. Influenced by the black cottonwood and willow forests that lined the river flowing from the east and grew in the floodplain, he named the river Boise and the trading post, Fort Boise, the French word for "wooded."

By 1841 the first migration from the East was making its way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Fort Boise was a rest stop for the travelers and would later become a prominent Oregon Trail landmark.

In 1862 Tim Goodale, a wagon scout already recognized for making cutoffs that shortened travel time on the Oregon Trail, left a wagon train of 300 camped on the Boise River and struck out in a northwesterly direction with 60 wagons.

Goodale blazed this trail through what is now Emmett, partially to accommodate members of his group looking for a shorter route to the gold strikes in Oregon and central Idaho. Goodale’s cutoff route to the north became popular even though travelers had to slide their wagons down the steep foothills into the Payette River Valley.

In the same year, prospectors discovered gold in the Boise Basin that led to the gold rush of 1863 wherein 16,000 fortune seekers converged into the area. Jonathan Smith came to the Boise Basin gold fields in the spring of 1863 leading a group of miners from Oregon.

They traveled over Goodale’s Cutoff but had to stop at the Payette River to wait for the spring runoff from the winter’s mountain snows to recede. While they waited Smith and a member of the group, Nathaniel Martin, enlisted the miners to help build a ferry and a hotel where the Boise Basin Trail and the Overland Road met. They called the community Martinsville.

Martin, known as Squire Martin, became Justice of the Peace and ran the ferry. Smith and his wife ran the hotel that also housed the town post office in which Smith was the first postmaster. The Smiths raised produce to sell to the travelers and dug the first irrigation ditch.

In 1865 Thomas Cahalan started another town nearby, naming it Emmettville in honor of his son, Emmett. He was successful in moving the post office to Emmettville and changing its name, a factor in securing the town’s future. Over the next several years, the Emmettville Post Office would change hands and locations, but postal authorities kept the post office name. The town of Emmettville built its first school in 1874.

The mid-1860s was a lawless period in many Idaho communities. The Payette River Valley was not immune to these criminal influences. A band of outlaws had a hideout about five miles east of what is now Emmett at a place called Picket’s Corral. The corral was a roadhouse overlooking the river. It sat below a cliff-like lava rock basin open on one end. Horse thieves placed a 10-foot-tall log picket fence across the opening making a corral to hold stolen horses until they could secret them out into the mountains to be sold in faraway locations.

The station quickly became the hangout for not only horse thieves but other criminals including bogus gold agents and highwaymen. The ringleader was ultimately identified as David Updyke, a man who led a double life as the Ada County Sheriff.

To confront this criminal menace, the citizens formed a band of vigilantes named the Payette Vigilance Committee. They elected William J. McConnell as their leader. McConnell would later become governor of Idaho and briefly serve as a U.S. senator.

Updyke resigned as sheriff and left Idaho. He was later lynched in Montana by unknown parties. Other accused criminals were summoned to appear before the committee. The summons assured them that they would receive a fair trial before a jury of seven citizens, and, if convicted, their punishments would fit their crimes. If they did not appear, they had 24 hours to leave the territory. If they were caught, they would be publicly whipped or hanged by the neck until dead. Many who received the letters of summons decided to just leave town and skip the trial.

At the end of three months, McConnell wrote, "…the committee transformed the Payette Valley, with its hitherto unsavory reputation, into a community of peaceful homes, where life and property were…safe…"

By 1870 the Jonathan Smith Company completed the area’s first diversions of river water into irrigation ditches. With irrigation, farming, ranching and the fruit industry began to flourish and provide food to the miners working in the nearby gold fields.

In 1883 James Wardwell platted the Emmettville townsite. A year later, citizens built the first bridge across the Payette River to Ada and Canyon Counties and a year after that formed the Emmettville School District.

To eliminate confusion between Emmettville, Idaho, and Emmettsville, Iowa, in 1885 the U.S. Postal Service changed the name of Emmettville to Emmett.

In 1900 Emmett, with a population of over 200, became an incorporated village. On April 6, 1909, they changed Emmett’s legal status to a city of the second class. The 1910 census reported the city had a population of 1,351.

The Tale of Freezeout Hill

In the winter of 1872 some freighters waited out a freezing night at the top of the steep hill on the southern rim of the Payette River Valley. They felt that it was not safe to make the steep descent in the dark. To make it down into the valley the next day, the freighters locked or froze their wagon wheels. Their oxen or mules slowly pulled the sliding wagons down the hill. When they got into Emmettville the next day, they recounted their harrowing experience by saying they were "froze out of the valley" and "nearly froze to death" when they spent that night on the hill. From then on the place has been called "Freezeout Hill."

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city has three municipal parks. The Emmett City Park has a swimming pool, tennis courts, playground and public band shell. The Gem Island Sports Complex, on a river island, is managed by Gem County and has lighted ball fields and other recreational activities and programs. Dirt bikers and cyclists have off-road fun at the Little Gem Cycle Park. The city celebrates Youth Appreciation Day on the last Saturday in April on the island.

The second full week in June marks the city’s annual Cherry Festival, a commemoration of the valley’s commercial cherry harvest. The festival started in 1923 when a packing shed employee suggested a dance would be a nice way to end the cherry harvest season. The idea caught on. Now upwards of 80,000 people come to Emmett each year to participate. The week of festivities includes Miss Gem County, Junior Miss Gem County, a carnival, food vendors, pie contests, a children’s parade and a main parade.

The third Saturday in July is "Cruise Night." This annual "Back to the 50s" event features a hula hoop contest, jitterbug dancing and a 50s band. One of the featured Cruise Night events is a "Swap N’ Shine" where more than 500 classic cars are displayed at City Park. Informal cruising of Main Street and Washington Avenue goes on during the day and into the evening.

Each August, Gem and Boise Counties combine efforts to produce the "Gem and Boise Counties Fair and Rodeo." In April, there is horse racing at the fairgrounds.

On the first full weekend in October, the Gem County Historical Society presents "The River Through Time"—a tribute to the people who settled the Payette River Valley. The fur trappers, settlers, miners, cowboys and sheepherders involve the public in their historical demonstrations. The Idaho Volunteers also skirmish with their Napoleon cannons. The two-day event is held at the Gem Island Sports Complex.

Many residents and visitors enjoy rafting or fishing on the stretch of the Payette River that passes through town. Black Canyon Reservoir is popular for water skiing, boating and fishing. The surrounding public lands, forests, lakes, rivers and streams provide many options for hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing and riding ATVs and snowmobiles.

Firebird Raceway, a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) recognized drag racing track, is located seven miles south of the city. The track, which opened in 1968, draws car racing enthusiasts from throughout the region.

Ten miles north of Emmett is Roystone Hot Springs and swimming pool, a natural hot mineral spring developed in 1909. The facility is privately owned but open to the public by reservation.

The city has numerous churches, representing several Christian denominations.

Emmett’s Main Street includes several historic buildings converted to retail shops and offices. The Gem County Courthouse and several other buildings in the city are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Gem County Historical Village Museum is a five-building complex that interprets the county’s rich early history. A historical library and archive is under development. The city library has about 50,000 books.

At the summit of Freezeout Hill is a memorial to veterans and public servants. The memorial replaced a 1928 monument constructed by the Payette River Pioneer Society to honor the pioneers of 1862 to 1868 who traveled the original road and withstood its hardships. The original marker is now on display at the County Courthouse.


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